Time for action is now

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:23 AM ET

It is a contest of massive import for the beleaguered Maple Leafs players, their coaches and general manager.

Losers of seven games in a line and now occupying a non-playoff spot in the NHL's Eastern Conference, the Leafs are desperate for a win.

The equally lamentable Montreal Canadiens, a point behind the Leafs in the standings, are just as desperate and currently just as inept.

When things are going well, there is no better place to be a hockey player than either in Toronto or Montreal. Praise flows like champagne on New Year's Eve.

And when things are going poorly it is hell on earth.

The machinations on the basketball side of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Ltd. empire this week have served as something of an emotional accelerator on the hockey side as well. The Leafs Nation exists in a state of panic at the best of times and this has its nervous citizens just about over the edge.

Cries of, "Off with their heads!" have reached all the way to the enterprise's ivory tower, where CEO Richard Peddie resides, though it's hard to tell if anyone of substance (i.e. the Teacher's Pension Fund) is paying any attention at all, so caught up in counting their money are they.

Three years ago, in February 2003, the new structure of MLSEL was unveiled, with Larry Tanenbaum as chairman-elect, replacing Steve Stavro.

"We have one objective," Tanenbaum said that day. "To bring home championships. Together with you, we crave that victory parade."

Nothing that has happened between that day and this would suggest that Tanenbaum was being anything but disingenuous. The only parade taking place at Bay and Lakeshore is to the bank.

In the intervening years, the Leafs and Raptors both hired general managers. Both were brand new to their positions, rookies willing to work cheap, and neither one of them has accomplished anything of significance in the pursuit of championships. Meanwhile, MLSEL is rolling in dough. If the board was so jacked up about winning, why didn't it insist on getting the very best managers available instead of a couple of guys wet behind the ears?

Now Rob Babcock has been fired. Can John Ferguson Jr. be far behind if this hockey season continues down this slippery slope?

It always has been easy for the Leafs to stay competitive, given their affluence. Now, with a hard salary cap to limit their spending, they actually have to develop players, something they've never been very good at because it wasn't necessary.

In a sane world, the Leafs would declare this team's cycle at an end, blow up the roster and sacrifice a season or two while they patiently retool. Unfortunately, there seems to be a philosophy here that it is unacceptable for a Toronto hockey team to take that path, even though the Leafs have gone nearly four decades since their most recent Stanley Cup trying it the other way.

Two years ago, Carolina missed the playoffs. Now the Hurricanes are the No. 1 team in the league. They did it by adapting to the new game with speed and youth, for the most part. So, there is another way to get better rather than by hiring old, slow guys with recognizable names.

It says here that Leafs fans just might be willing to live with a team that struggles for a year or two if they're convinced the franchise is building with the kind of talent it will take to win in this league in the future.

But, back to reality.

Maybe, just maybe, this will be the night the Leafs snap their losing streak. Darcy Tucker will be back for this one. Bryan McCabe will not be far behind. Eric Lindros had his first full practice with the team in six weeks yesterday, so he is coming back soon.

SNAP OUT OF IT

"We've got to do it (tonight)" Matt Stajan said. "It's a big test for both teams to see who's going to snap out of it. We have to make sure it's us."

Here comes the cavalry to turn things around just enough for the Leafs to sneak into the playoffs, where they will get filled in by the Hurricanes or maybe the Ottawa Senators.

Is that really what MLSEL craves?


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